Even if it would be easiest to classify Natalie Prass’ first album as a self-titled singer-songwriter debut, the title and what it implies turn out to be somewhat misleading. That’s because Natalie Prass doesn’t really bring to mind anything you readily associate with any of those terms: Made up of grandiose soundscapes that are lushly rendered with string and horn arrangements courtesy of Matthew E. White’s Spacebomb production outfit, Natalie Prass hardly comes off like a work that would or should be credited under a single individual’s name. And it feels even less like it could be Prass’ first time out, not considering it’s a rare album where an ambitious artist’s grasp actually matches her reach.
What’s more, there’s a maturity to Prass’ music that makes it seem timeless in a way that runs contrary to her current status as an up-and-comer du jour, as she melds symphonic R&B and country stylings with an artsy sensibility that makes what’s traditional appear avant-garde — or vice versa. That’s what stands out when you first hear her songs, like how Prass opens the album with one of her most ornate and fully realized tracks, “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”, built on full brass, woodwind, and strings sections. Holding nothing back, Prass makes a compelling first impression, as she breathlessly repeats, “Our love is a long goodbye,” her thin but strong voice pushed to a higher and higher pitch by horn fanfares and fluttering violins. Building on “My Baby Don’t Understand Me”, “Bird of Prey” seems even more fleshed out with its more playful and colorful tone, as Prass’ strutting vocals get to show off a little more to almost funky beats and bouncing piano chords.
As impressive as Prass’ compositional chops are, especially for someone who’s nominally a rookie, they’re matched by an uncanny feel that doesn’t usually go with her level of experience. That’s even clearer on the pieces where Prass scales back the orchestral embellishments, as she strikes a greater sense of balance between her vocals and the instrumental elements. On the slowburning “Why Don’t You Believe in Me”, Prass finds more space for her yearning voice to work with, mostly playing off a simmering bass rhythm and a tasteful accompaniment of horns. And it’s the album’s most subdued and subtle number “Violently” that sets the stage best for Prass, who sounds more confident here letting her pensive vocals take the lead for the tender orchestration to follow.
If anything, just how deft Prass’ touch as songwriter can be is only underscored by those moments when she goes over the top, when the grandeur and embellished details of her music create distance instead of immediacy, evoking affect rather than emotion. Would-be fairy tale soundtracks like “Christy” and “It Is You” aim to tug at your heartstrings, but they overshoot the mark with the stylized refinement of Prass’ singing and the maudlin arrangements. As what’s dramatic about her music turns melodramatic, the delicate sense of romance elsewhere on the album becomes too sweet and saccharine, with the showtune-like theatricality of Prass’ vocals egged on by ostentatious strings, harp, and horns. Even more of an indulgence is “Reprise”, too precious yet also unsubstantial as Prass’ spoken-word forget-me-nots weave their way through tweety-bird flutes and fluttering strings.
What makes “Reprise” feel like more of a trifling extravagance is that it’s ultimately an extraneous reinterpretation of Natalie Prass‘ most easily appealing track, “Your Fool”, which shows what Prass is capable of when she’s more instinctual as a songwriter. Moving to a swaying tempo set by her broken-hearted doo-woppy singing, “Your Fool” shows Prass at her most intuitive, her voice resonating with more grain and twang when backed by warmer, rough-hewn instrumentation, like anxiously pulsing bass and piano. So while Prass hams it up on “Reprise” reciting lines like “So tonight when you’re out / You’ll come back to an empty house / With note signed / Sincerely, your fool” as if she’s reading a soap opera script, the same lyrics are more convincingly poignant on “Your Fool” when she lets loose with as much deep-down heft her voice can muster.
Indeed, a song like “Your Fool” goes to show that, even on a precocious first album that impresses for skipping a few steps and going for a higher degree of difficulty, Natalie Prass can also stand out when she’s not trying so hard. Natalie Prass shows she’s got the complex stuff down pat, but getting back to the basics might be the next stage of development that takes her to another level.